What If This Is the Last Time You See Your Parents?

I try not to approach life with any sense of morbidity (i.e., “today might be my last day”), though I’m also not really a “seize the day” type of person. I’m somewhere in the middle.

However, this year has felt a little different. My dad was diagnosed with the third cancer of his life (colon), and soon after operating on it, doctors found a rapidly-growing tumor on his liver (cancer #4). I drove to Virginia in April to visit with my family after the first operation, and with Dad in chemo now, I decided to take another 15-hour drive to see him.

One thing I’ve realized during this process is that I’m really grateful that my relationship with my parents has been strong for most of my life. Sure, there were bumpy teenage angst years, but nothing too bad. Overall, we’ve been close for a long, long time–including weekly calls for nearly 2 decades–which results in me valuing the time I spend with them without any sense of squeezing everything in at the last minute.

That said, this was the first visit when the possibility arose that this will be the last time I see my dad. Unlikely, but possible. So it made me really appreciate the time I had with him. The four of us lingered after every meal to talk for hours, we took several long walks, and I also gave him the space he needs–chemo is tiring.

Dad continues to inspire me with his approach to cancer #4. He’s always been healthy and active, but I could see it being more difficult to maintain those habits in a time of weakness. Not for Dad, though. He also meditates via prayer for nearly an hour every day, and he spends many of his waking hours researching cancer and talking to doctors. He also voluntarily serves on the board of Virginia State University (a historically Black college) and United Way. This cancer is another puzzle for him to solve, just like all of the furniture he has patiently and precisely constructed in the garage as a hobby throughout my life. Mom is there for him every step of the way, which is equally inspiring.

As I departed early Sunday morning, I gave Dad a big hug. I told him I love him and to hang in there.

Have you ever wondered if this is the last time you’ll see someone you care deeply about? How do you approach such encounters?

14 thoughts on “What If This Is the Last Time You See Your Parents?”

  1. Oh, man. This post really touched me. I remember clearly the last time I was with my grandfather and the pain I felt when I left, knowing it was the last time I was going to see him. In some ways I think that was easier (for me) than the uncertainty…. although it was still incredibly difficult. But my grandfather was old… and had led a good and long life. Seeing your dad, so young, now on his 4th cancer… sometimes life is just so unfair. I’m thankful that your dad has lived long enough to see what a good person you’ve become and what you’ve accomplished. Many people don’t get that. I think about him often and am hoping for a miracle for your family. And either way, for peace.

    Reply
    • Thank you for sharing that, Cynthia. It’s a good reminder to me that certainty can be just as devastating as uncertainty. I’m sorry for the loss of your grandfather, and I appreciate the hope you expressed for my dad.

      Reply
  2. My mom is still alive, but my Dad passed away 10 years ago this October. It was a shock. He wasn’t sick, other than being overweight. Other than being heavy, he was seemingly fine for a 65-year old. When I got a call from my sister, I assumed it was my grandma, my dad’s mom. I just assumed something had gone wrong for her to call in early in the day as she did. Despite the fact that my memory sucks, that moment is etched in stone, clear as if it happened yesterday.

    My grandma was in her 90’s. We sat around her bed in hospice. We were told she would pass within the next 12-hours. She had started what they call the death rattle. We had a bedside vigil for the next day. We had known she had stopped eating almost a week ago. Hadn’t drank in a few days.

    All of that to say that I’ve had it both ways. A death completely out of the blue and another that we knew when it was approximately coming. Both are unpleasant for different reasons. Neither truly offer solace, though I suppose having someone at least breathing nearby would make those deathbed apologies or voiced regrets more meaningful.

    I don’t view the thought ‘this could be our last time together’ to be morbid at all. It’s acknowledgement of human frailty and cruel chance. My dad died young. My grandma died old. My cousin was killed by a distracted driver while she was in her early 40’s. My aunt raised her young children. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about these things and use them to live intentionally. I’m not one of those people that has a problem apologizing. If I did wrong, I don’t want that burdening me if it’s our last conversation. I don’t go to bed angry with my wife or children. If there is an issue, I work to make amends. They aren’t where I am in my life. They would probably be content to go to bed angry, give me the silent treatment the next day or something. I don’t let it fester. I say I’m sorry when I owe an apology, and I let it go when I’m owed one whether I get it or not. Life is too short for me to not make the most of each moment I have with those I love.

    My dad and I butted heads all the time. We were very different people. He kept records of wrongs. Believe me. I cleaned out a lifetime of notebooks he jotted in. Every day or two he’d write something. I inherited notebooks filled from cover to cover with daily experiences, kindnesses shown and a lot of wrongs he felt done to him. I know some of the stuff he wrote about me near the end of his life. I read enough to realize I didn’t want to read anymore. He was flawed. I am flawed. But even when he was pissed.. He’d still say ‘I love you’ before hanging up or leaving in a huff. That’s one of the great things he left me. There was often conflict, but there was always love.

    Our dad’s are important people, as are our moms. My heart went out to you when you talked about your dad on that Facebook Live and you broke just a bit. I have been there. I KNOW that pain. I know that feeling. I know that uncertainty. I know that the day will come, and it’s going to shake you. You can’t help but to be shaken by the weight of such a relationship that will forever more be ‘past tense’, but man, how fortunate do I feel to have loved so deeply and to have been loved in return.

    Having lived through both the one you knew was coming, and the one you didn’t, I honestly can’t tell you which was harder. I can only tell you that it helped cement in me the need to ask that question ‘what if this is the last time?’ and it helps put things in perspective for me. It is just a tool in the box to help me be as gentle as I can be with those hearts that will break when our relationship is past tense. It was a gift that came at a very high cost. I wish I could give everyone that intentionality. I honestly feel like it makes the journey lighter.

    I wish you peace, Jamey. I wish your dad healing, and I hope you continue asking the question ‘what if this is the last time?’ for the rest of your life. Wishing you so much happiness, my friend.

    Reply
    • Dusty: You make a good point that “It’s acknowledgement of human frailty and cruel chance.” And I like that you tied it to your philosophy of living intentionally, particularly with endings (ending conversations, ending each day, etc). I try to do the same with the phone calls with my parents and these trips.

      I wrote this post without thinking about “what if this is the last time” as a positive, but you’ve added a beautiful positive spin to it that I will carry with me. Thank you, Dusty.

      Reply
  3. Both my parents died when I was in my 20s, about 9 years apart. We just have to try to be nice to people, keep in touch, try to have good meaningful moments together, do things they like sometimes, even if you hate to do them, and put your phones down once in awhile when you’re not alone in a room. Don’t be afraid to talk to them about your future, telling it like a story, because that’s probably what they’re thinking… how much they will miss you. And always let them know you love them. Then you don’t have regrets about the last time you saw somebody. It sucks (reeeeaaallly sucks), but it’s life.

    And I’m so sorry to hear what your Dad is going through. F-ing cancer. Can’t stop hoping for the best. 💕

    Reply
  4. Jamey,

    I remember vividly the call that I received from my mother when my father was taken to the hospital. We had talked often and had spoken only a few days before on the phone. I was at my in-laws about 90 min north pf Philly and we raced down to be with him. The cancer in his lungs had metastasized throughout his body. They tried to make him comfortable. I remember squeezing his hand and he squeezed back,. No words were uttered by either of us, but when he passed I knew that I had my father’s love.

    It’s never easy saying goodbye…but long before that, make sure you never have any regrets about what you should’ve said…say it now, so they can hear you and respond. Every day is precious and tomorrow is not guaranteed. We can be so absorbed in our life that we can forget those around us, even those who mean the most to us.

    I’ll keep both of you in my daily prayers.

    Peace,
    Joe

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing this, Joe. I’m so sorry the cancer metastasized so quickly–that’s scary. I’m glad you were able to be by his side, and I appreciate the wisdom of saying the things that matter now while the other person can respond.

      Reply
  5. Jamey, this was a touching post. I don’t think that thinking about death is morbid, rather I view it as a way to appreciate things even more. I think you might find some interest in reading about stoicism and their thoughts around “memento mori”, negative visualization and premeditatio malorum. There are many good books on stoicism and I have found their way of thinking to be very helpful, I hope you do too. Feel free to reach out if you need a suggestion where to start!

    Jason

    Reply
  6. I was traveling and only had access to email/internet once a week and found out that within a one-week period my aunt who was a second mom to my siblings and me had passed away and I was informed that she passed before I had a chance to come home and say my goodbyes.

    I miss her laugh more than anything.

    Now, when I hear either of my parents laugh, I drink it in and remember that one day that I’ll only have recordings on home videos of that laugh. I don’t think this leads to a sense of morbidity, but puts things in perspective.

    Reply

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